James Ritchie: Bruno Manser: The Inside Story. Summer Times, Singapore, 1994. 251 pages.
Review by Otto Steinmayer.
The mysterious Bruno Manser—the mysterious Penan. What ever happened
to Bruno? We used to hear a lot about him, in articles by NST
staff correspondent James Ritchie, who described him—and in this his
book still describes him—as a mix of Lord Jim, Tarzan, and Rasputin.
Grainy photos accompanied these squibs which actually made him with his
ring-beard look more like a cheerful and myopic Thoreau. As for the
Penan... Mostly they they were just weird. But more on them later.
Sighs of relief could be heard in a few government offices when Bruno Manser left Sarawak in 1990. The man had been a duri in the foot of authority for six years, and gained quite a reputation. It’s not easy to disentangle the few facts from the verbiage in Ritchie’s account, but if we read carefully, the following becomes clear.
Bruno Manser was born in Switzerland sometime around 1954. His family lives in Basel. He attended medical school but did not take a degree; he was imprisoned for refusing to perform the military training required by law of every Swiss male; he herded cows. He is an artist of some skill, and apparently knows at least five languages: Penan and English as well as the three official languages of his own country. He is of middle height—average for a Dayak—dark, and as photos elsewhere show, in good shape.
Bruno first visited Malaysia in 1983, staying in
Trengganu. In 1984 he came to Sarawak with a British Mulu Caves
Expedition, and, when his visa expired at the end of that year, simply
stayed on. Long Seridan, not far from Gunung Mulu, was his base; but he
In 1986 Bruno was arrested at Long Napir, but
managed to escape. Later that same year the PFF attempted to capture
him from ambush, but he escaped then, too. Then Bruno lay low until the
end of March 1990, when his parents fell sick and he left Sarawak for
During these six years in the forest, Bruno lived
in much the same way as live the Penan, and he made it a point of
honour to “pull his own weight.” He hunted, gathered and took care of
himself. He was gravely ill several times, and at risk of dying.
Bruno says that he had no Penan girlfriend, and I
find this entirely believable, for no angry Bornean wife or
father-in-law has come out to file a paternity suit, as several were
prompt to do in the case of travel-writer James Barclay.
Bruno studied Penan life and recorded it. He wrote, or helped in the writing of, a number of remonstrances and petitions to the government of Sarawak on behalf of his hosts.
Such was Manser’s career, really a very inoffensive and even unadventurous routine. A radio technician posted to the ulu could easily experience as much. Thus the anxiety he caused the government both state and federal is a most surprising accomplishment, except for one thing. The Penan were being logged out of house and home, and Bruno was eager to obtain the most publicity possible for them and their desperate situation. Bruno could hardly avoid being typed as that romantic figure, the White-Man-Gone-Native. So what if he looked silly? In the post-modern world, images are negotiable, and if Bruno could trade on his to bring some help to the Penan, it was a shame he had to endure. At least this is the way I reconstruct his reasoning. Manser clearly had no illusions about journalists, their methods, motives, or pliable morals.
It was made known that journalists were welcome,
and, soon enough, reporters and video-crews came and went frequently up
and down the Baram. The present James Ritchie came and swallowed the
bait of a lurid story hook, line and sinker. The whole of his contact
with Manser consisted of one personal meeting and interview, with a
sprinkling of letters. Paucity of fact did not hinder the legend of
Bruno from being created and disseminated with great speed and success.
This was what got him in trouble with authority. Poverty is not
nearly as much of an embarrassment to a government’s image as
primitivity. The Malaysian élite were aghast that the world
should know not only that there were still real, “primitive,”
bare-ass, naked-tit tribesmen and women living out there in the jungle,
but that the government itself should be accused of dispossessing them.
There wasn’t much that the government was willing to do about logging, as long as the money came in; but it was always possible to hush up the painful details. Manser was clever with words and clever with communication. In this he was a threat. The Malaysian counter-propaganda campaign came down on him with both feet, and Ritchie was the man who led it.
But I promised to speak about the Penan, too, so let us digress.
It’s common to say that we know little about the Penan. Actually, there is a lot on them, but apart from J. Peter Brosius’s The Axiological Presence of Death, there is no one book. (Brosius spent a few years with the Penan of Long Geng, and this 1000-page dissertation got him his doctorate in 1992 from the University of Michigan.)
The Penan are altogether admirable people. With
due respect to my Iban in-laws, I must say I think them the most
admirable people in Sarawak. They are perhaps the most original of the
present inhabitants of northern Borneo.
Hundreds of years ago, before the Ibans spread out over Sarawak, dozens of small bands lived in the forest, among them the Ukit, the Dayak Lundu, the Baketan and the Penan. Eventually all of these were assimilated to larger tribes, took to longhouses on their own, were killed, or simply died out—except for the Penan. They were truly jungle people. The most famous tribes of Borneo, the Ibans and the Orang Ulu, though no mean woodsmen, nonetheless did not live in the jungle, but preferred—and still prefer—to settle on the banks of rivers. Other Dayaks may now and then be spooked by awe of the jungle; the Penan are perfectly at home there.
Of all the Dayak tribes, only the Penan never
went headhunting, though they were often the hunted, and suffered much
as the other races pushed across Borneo.
The Penan are called nomads, in other words, they “wander,” hunting and gathering. As well as food, the Penan collected forest products such as damar resin, rotan, camphor, bezoars, garu wood, etc. These they sold for necessities, traditionally through longhouse-dwelling middle-men of other tribes, like the Kayan, but in the Brooke era through government arranged trading sessions. These last benefitted the Penan by ensuring a fair price for their goods. The traditional middle-men took a big commission for their services and treated the Penan with contempt in the bargain. Today the demand for forest produce is depressed. The Penan principally trade in handicrafts, their extraordinary ajat baskets and sleeping mats.
A learned Berawan friend of mine says that the Penan were always clever at words, that “it’s not easy to get the better of them in an argument.” The received opinion declares that they are “shy, sullen, and diffident” when they deal with people from outside their circle. This is largely an act, like the ironic obsequiousness of Uncle Tom at the planter’s mansion. If Kenyahs or white folk have such a good opinion of themselves, the Penan attitude goes, who are we to spoil their fun?
Whether nomad is really the correct word is
doubtful. In strict definition, a “nomad” is a herdsman who follows his
sheep, goats, or other cattle from pasture to pasture throughout the
year. The Penan might more accurately be called
“forest-rangers-at-large,” because their search for food leads them on
settled routes in the forest between known stands of wild sago, which
they tend and harvest at appropriate times. Sago supplies their daily
carbohydrate, and game their protein. Fruits and vegetables grow
I am speaking, of course, about Penan life when
the forest was not devastated. Don’t take my word for it. Talk, not to
just a Penan, but to any Dayak born during the Brooke era. The forest
was one gigantic Jaya Supermarket, overflowing in abundance and open
twenty-four hours, 365 days a year, with the advantage that everything
was free for the taking. My father-in-law remembers well the time when
mousedeer used to amble across his backyard, and I have heard many
stories about the family father going out at 4:30 in the afternoon to
hunt that evening’s dinner, about pigs shot 500 m from the longhouse
steps, about boatloads of fish. It was, everyone agrees—even ex-hunters
now in suits—a bloody good life.
Once the Penan were reckoned the best nourished people of Borneo. Animals and fish are now scarce. The native life cannot be sustained in an environment that is gutted. Whatever the officials may say about forest cover, you cannot hunt pig on an oil-palm plantation nor fish downriver from a sawmill.
There is much more to know about the Penan, but I have no space to write a treatise on them here. One day Manser will publish something—we hope this will include a personal memoir as well as academic papers—that may well prove to be the definitive general book on the Penan, such as the other Dayak peoples each possess already. Until then, we have to make do with what information we can get. Ritchie’s book is valuable for conveying to us Manser’s own words and the words of Penan who have chose to let their opinions be heard. Ritchie shows commendable honesty in repeating Manser’s and the Penans’ words as they stand. (This may not have been his intention.)
What do the Penan want? How do they feel about their life and their future? You may find thoughtful answers in their own words, but I refuse to summarize them here, for their attitude is not simple but subtle and deserves to be read and considered in full.
Unfortunately, in order to get to these valuable bits, we have to push through much tedious and unwelcome commentary. Perhaps Ritchie can be forgiven for his numerous inconsistencies, errors, and embarrassing lapses of judgement. He worked in haste, and no doubt had little time to research or to think. Though Brosius’s dissertation was available, Ritchie omitted to consult it, and elsewhere he shows little more than the most casual acquaintance with Penan culture. He is unfamiliar with their character, their adat, their poetry (this he could have read in the translations of Carol Rubenstein), their other arts, and their demography. What he repeats he could have picked up from any tourist guide book or traveller’s tale.
Even more strange, he says little about Sarawak that one could not obtain from the same sources. He I suppose he tried to tart up a narrative which, delivered in a sober and economical style might have filled a third of the pages he has delivered here.. It is clear from the very lack of detail, as well as from the over-abundance of the usual suspects—all those mini-excurses on blowpipes, warriors, etc., the routine tourist stuff—that BM is not intended for the home market but for a foreign audience. The fact that he glosses the most common Malay words (parang “= bush-knife” etc.) confirms its destination.
But I cannot pardon Ritchie’s conceit. The itch
to editorialize afflicts him, and everyone is his scratching-post. He
is constantly telling what the Penan ought to be thinking, what Bruno
ought to think, telling us what we ought to think. I
resent being bullied by a writer, and there is not one page in this
book I can read without being disgusted by some righteous orthodoxy.
And when he plays amateur cop, the worst kind....I have no stomach to
For a Malaysian and putative fellow-citizen of the Penan, the patronizing attitude he adopts towards them and the colonialist language he uses in reference to them is highly offensive. These qualities pervade the book, and may be summed up in two phrases: “Penan are dumb primitives,” and “we have to save the Penan from themselves.”
When Ritchie first meets the “real” (scil. “nomadic”) Penan, they are “milling around uncertainly near the [logging] camp’s sundry shop.” Such language is better applied to a flock of geese than to human beings. Ritchie latches upon one Mr. Gerawat as his intended guide to the mysterious Bruno. Gerawat is clad in a “skimpy” loincloth and nothing else, beside rottan calf-rings, a blowpipe, and a container for darts. His physique is without defect. He’s sure a virile buck. The rest of the passage runs in the same vein:
“Gerawat looked out of place, I smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back (I have noticed that nomads do not smile as a habit.
“I learned that
Gerawat belonged to a group living in the nearby jungle and would be
returning there immediately. Excited by this news, it seemed to be just
the opportunity that I had been hoping for, so without hesitation I
asked if I could go with him. He looked at me suspiciously as
he scratched the back of one leg with his foot. Somehow, I
felt that Gerawat would trust me-he reminded me of the kampung
children I knew in my younger days in Alor Star and Kelantan, in
Peninsular Malaysia. I was sincere and I have found that if you
have sincerity you need not be afraid.
[At this point, Gerawat turns to a Chinese acquaintance and asks whether Ritchie is an “orang putih.’ Ritchie, unwilling either to unravel the skein of his ancestry or say simply that he is a Malaysian, replies that he is a white man.]
...Gerawat stared at me, awe-struck...” [My emphases.]
Well, isn’t this exactly the same way a white traveller described the bashful natives a hundred years ago? The native is inscrutable, like a Hollywood Red Indian. He’s suspicious of the white-man, the first he’s seen, who in actuality is brimming with brotherly love. Ritchie shall win the Penan’s trust. They’re all rather child-like, aren’t they? Unpredictable, too. Any minute he may blowpipe you and melt into the leaves. And so close to the earth as to scratch in public. Rather nasty, too, to give them the epithet “illiterate” in an NST article quoted later in the book.
This is only one side of Ritchie’s labyrinthine rhetoric. To discuss the other tricks of his trade would prolong this review over-much, so we must pass by his habits of innuendo and argument by probability; of begging the question; of reporting mistakes and misinformation prominently, then tacking on a slight correction; his “economical” use of facts and references, less solid than one would think, for a downpour of words obscures all; his appeal to authority. For example, who is this “Professor Bruenig” who slams Bruno’s book? For all we know he could be Professor of Plumbing at the University of Knockwürst. To what ultimate end all this verbal chicanery is directed I am unwilling to speculate.
Ritchie may have a point when he insinuates wicked motives among the environmental groups. In the battle of the elephants of ideological green-ism and staunchly profit-driven government, the Penan are the proverbial “mousedeer in the middle.” However, if groups such as the Rainforest Action Network have bent the rules a little, it’s certainly not been for profit. Ritchie, in a climactic attempt to convince us of the insincerity of the Penans’ foreign advocates, states that of monies collected on the “Voices for the Borneo Rainforest” world tour in 1990, not a penny went to the Penan. True. Ritchie prints the balance sheet. Not only did tour expenses use up all the money donated, but the organization went in debt to the tune of US$21,000. Some profit. If Ritchie thinks we are so stupid as not to know red ink when we see it, I am happy to disabuse him.
Finally, Ritchie’s style is most inelegant and occasionally he writes just bad English. I noted a choice mixed metaphor on p. 213: “If these people are not careful, these wolves can sow seeds of discord and disharmony.” Here wildlife, agriculture, and music mash together in a hideous linguistic car-wreck.
Manser himself, after careful listening thought, devised a program for the Penan, who he knew would inevitably leave the jungle life after two or three generations. In this, Ritchie at least—thank goodness—lets Manser and the Penan speak for themselves. If progress is schools and clinics, the Penan like progress; but if progress also means an deprival of livelihood and relegation to the status of despised unemployables, they’d like to take change a bit slowly. To this end, Manser proposed, as early as 1986, the establishment of a forest reserve for Penan who needed time to adjust, and the irony is that such a reserve was actually established, by Manser’s opponents and persecutors, who then took all the credit. [See NST for 19.10.1993] Maybe Bruno had some sound ideas after all.
But Bruno Manser, the jungle Tarzan, is entirely
a creation of the very James Ritchie who then turns to judge and
condemn him. Ritchie says precisely as much, and takes pride in it. He
might well take pride in this Tarzan movie that sticks so beautifully
to the clichés. Manser himself in a letter sweetly calls
Ritchie’s effort a ragout [= “a stew of leftovers, highly
Time has passed and Manser, the Penan, and
logging have gotten altogether more notoriety than is good for them.
Ritchie ought to feel now like Dr. Frankenstein when his
creature began to quote Aeschylus back to him. Compare, courteous
reader, Manser’s eloquence and Ritchie’s hype and see how you